Forget Food Deserts. We Need to Talk About Food Mirages.

This story is part of Treehugger's news archive. Learn more about our news archiving process or read our latest news.
CC BY 2.0. Francisco Antunes

Conversations about food security need to go beyond physical access to include affordability.

Food security is defined by the Food and Agriculture Organization as “a situation that exists when all people, at all times, have physical, social, and economic access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.”

Unfortunately, this is not true for many people living in the United States and Canada. Despite being two of the wealthiest countries in the world, a shocking number of individuals and families have trouble stocking their fridges and pantries with healthy fresh food on a regular basis.

Why is this?

One might say it’s because people live in “food deserts.” This term refers to the absence of supermarkets within easy walking or transit distance. As Mother Jones explains:

“In the past, if a city dweller had to journey a mile to a grocery store, it probably meant she lived in a ‘food desert.’ The term was coined by social scientists in the 1990s to describe places bereft of ingredients needed to make a healthy meal.”

But as researchers dig deeper to figure out why so many North Americans eat poorly, they’ve realized the problem is far more complex than a matter of physical access. Many city dwellers live in close proximity to supermarkets, but cannot afford to shop there. This is a socio-economic problem of another kind, hence the creation of a new term, “food mirage.”

A study published last year from the University of Winnipeg argues for the importance of considering more than just physical access when assessing food security:

“Proximity to a supermarket alone is not substantive enough to discern if an individual is able to purchase and consume healthy food since different socio‐economic groups are able to navigate and overcome spatial barriers differently. Furthermore, there is no relationship between proximity to a supermarket and capacity to purchase healthy food. As such, a definition of food environments must include an analysis of social deprivation.”

An article for Mother Jones, titled “The depressing truth about hipster food towns,” takes it a step further, arguing that it’s not just poverty that prevents people from shopping at the stores closest to their homes, but the types of stores that are popping up in cities everywhere. Many are super trendy, high-priced grocers, fancy farmer’s markets, and farm-to-table shops, geared toward wealthy young hipster-types and foodies.

I noticed this in Toronto a decade ago, as a poor university student. Despite living close to the farmer’s market in Trinity-Bellwoods Park, there was no way I could afford a $4 head of organic kale. Instead, I walked a half hour to buy imported produce at No Frills.

Stephen Tucker Paulsen cites Deborah Gilfillan, who lives in Brooklyn but must walk a mile past Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s to get to an affordable grocery store. In her neighbourhood, cheap staples are hard to find: “You can go in there and buy 10 different lettuces. But we grew up on pork. A lot of them don't have it.”

Food mirages are worst in neighborhoods and cities experiencing rapid gentrification (such as Portland). Government policies fail to acknowledge the socio-economic layers that exist in a particular place.

“In 2010, the White House announced the Healthy Food Financing Initiative, which provides loans, grants, and tax breaks to food sellers mostly in neighborhoods that qualify as food deserts. To help identify needy areas, the government looks at whether the median income of a census tract is less than 81 percent of the median income of the greater area. But this metric doesn't work well in gentrifying neighborhoods, where rich and poor people live crammed together.”

Nobody seems to know what to do about this situation. SNAP benefits, based on average nationwide costs, don’t go far in high-priced markets. Certainly more research is needed, such as the mapping done by the University of Winnipeg researchers, which illustrates specific areas of the city in need of budget grocery stores.

City planners should acknowledge that healthy just doesn't cut it if it's unaffordable. For every 'hipster' market, there should be a Kroger (U.S.) or Food Basics (Canada), or even a lower-priced farmer’s market, placed nearby. The solution won’t be easy, but evolving our conversation from deserts to mirages is a step in the right direction.